In Siena, the sacred and the profane are constantly intertwined, even in church.
The Palio is just around the corner: the race will be in just a few hours. It is about 3:00 pm and the horse assigned to the contrada (neighbourhood) is brought by the Barbaresco (the handler) to the Contrada’s Oratory to be blessed. Sacred and profane, heavenly and earthly: this is the Palio.
The blessing of the horse is a particularly delicate and heart-felt moment for the people of each contrada, already in fervent anticipation for the upcoming race and prey to the anxiety, passion and inner torment that only the Palio is capable of arousing in the soul of a Sienese.
It’s a religious, almost mystical ritual in which the horse and jockey stand in front of the altar while the neighbourhood priest, known as the ‘Correttore’, pronounces the phrase ‘Go and come back a winner’ at the end of the blessing to wish the horse the desired victory.
For all those coming to the Palio who aren’t part of a contrada or from Siena, you should keep in mind that if you are able to enter the oratory during the function (entry may easily be denied due to the small size of the rooms and the delicacy of the moment), the strictest silence is required and applause and the use of flash is absolutely forbidden to not distress the horse.
The blessing of the horse kicks off another fundamental step of the Palio day. Those wearing the medieval costumes of each Contrada go to the prefecture (next to the cathedral), from where the Historical Procession departs towards the Piazza del Campo, before the race at 7:00 pm.
The blessing of the horse takes place in the Oratories, essentially the Churches of the Contrada, and is officiated by a priest who takes the title of ‘Correttore’. Churches were the early centres of the Contrade, where not only liturgical events were celebrated, but people of the neighbourhood would gather in council to listen to the Priest addressing them from the altar.
Some Contrade began to have a church as a centre as early as the 15th century, but most didn’t find a permanent seat until the late 18th or early 19th century. Almost all the Contrade, before having their own headquarters, asked the parish priests or lay community for hospitality. To compensate for the inconvenience, the Contrade paid an annual fee, consisting of several pounds of white wax, and offered the church the proceeds of the prizes won at the race. The ancient silver basins and beautiful damask drapery were used to make sacred furnishings and vestments, which embellished the oratories, but unfortunately also destroyed valuable evidence of the Palio. Sometimes, the Contrada even received a subsidy to participate in the Palio from their host. But relations between brotherhoods and contrade weren’t always cordial. Often the agreement was broken and the contrada was forced to find another oratory.
Finally, in the second half of the 18th century, the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo ordered a great suppression of Sienese convents and brotherhoods, which allowed almost all the Contrade to settle in abandoned churches, becoming custodians and often owners of stupendous sacred arts, still visible in these small and priceless treasure troves of faith… and of the Palio!
Where: each contrada has its own oratory within the territory
When: it’s advisable to call the contrada society or the parish to verify the opening hours